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Athletes and celebrities can't escape social media scrutiny no matter how much they want to

Celebrities, athletes and politicians use social media to tout their brand, but they try to steer clear when the ridicule comes their way.

23 Dec 2015, Cleveland, Ohio, USA --- 23 December 2015: Cleveland Cavaliers Forward LeBron James (23) attempts a lay up during the game between the New York Knicks and the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Oh. (Photo by Mark Alberti/ Icon Sportswire) --- Image by © Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire/Corbis
© Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire/Corbis

Cleveland Cavaliers fans are flummoxed.

LeBron James, one of the most highly regarded basketball players ever, quietly unfollowed the team's official Twitter account on Monday, shortly after he posted his 41st career triple-double (33 points scored, 11 rebounds and 11 assists). The performance fueled a 124-91 blowout of the Denver Nuggets and helped the team win the Central Division title.

After the game, a reporter asked James about his online activities. Why did James, who has 29 million Twitter followers (and follows only 153), unfollow the Cavs?

"Next question," a flustered James answered. A firestorm of speculation followed.

James isn't the only celebrity who's found social media to be the good, bad and the ugly. Twitter's immediacy and reach to 320 million users around the world lets athletes, entertainers and politicians connect with fans. They've used it to push their latest projects, express their passions, and sell their products.

But that connection works both ways. It's also opened these celebrities up to scrutiny, criticism and ridicule.

Earlier this month, pop star Sam Smith said he would quit Twitter in the face of a major backlash after he misspoke about being the first openly gay man to win an Oscar during his acceptance speech at the Academy Awards last month.

"I'm logging off for a while," Smith tweeted, after saying he'd misread a story saying no openly gay man had won the best actor award. "Some Martinis shaken not stirred are definitely in order."

Meanwhile, megastar Beyonce was praised and scorned on her social media accounts for a politically charged Super Bowl 50 halftime performance. She sang a new single, "Formation," which included politics, feminism and black history. Her backup dancers even wore Afros and outfits reminiscent of the Black Panthers movement of the 1960s and '70s.

While some said Beyonce was the highlight of the Big Game, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani called her performance ridiculous. Law enforcement officials across the country said it was an attack on them, and there was even a minor protest outside the NFL headquarters in New York City.

"Social media is a double-edged sword for celebrities and athletes," said Adam Earnheardt, a professor at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio. "You can almost become obsessed monitoring their every move."

Some celebrities tend to forget they're brands unto themselves, and so when they post something they could be helping or harming in a way they didn't expect. That's part of why celebrities need to take a deep breath and roll with social media's frequent tempests, said Gartner analyst Jennifer Polk.

"They have to develop a thick skin and be able to take those criticisms and scrutiny because they are brands," Polk said. "Fans have certain expectations."

James's sudden abandonment of the Cavs' Twitter account has ignited a firestorm of speculation. Some wonder if he's at odds with a team he's already left once. Others say he might be tuning out social media to concentrate on his team's upcoming playoff run. Maybe he's playing mind games, others wonder. Or making a statement. Or maybe it was just a mistake.

James hasn't commented on the issue, and one of his representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But in a subsequent Tweet on Tuesday, James intimated he isn't abandoning the Cavs, just its Twitter account. He also may join, Snapchat, another popular social media platform as well.

"Think I may just join the Snap this week," he said. "Another way for my fans to ride with me throughout my journey."